There are moments, teaching in prison, that make you stop and remember where you are. Sometimes you can get through a whole night without having to acknowledge the barbed wire, the armed guards or the towers. Once you get past all that and are in the classroom with the guys it can be like any writing class in any school classroom.

Well, maybe I exaggerate a bit, but still, there are nights now when it doesn’t feel like prison. It feels more like this class I teach with these students I’ve gotten to know. We talk about normal stuff, and only touch on prison life a couple times. Plus, you get used to some of the common talk about prison, so that it doesn’t strike you as strange to listen to someone talk about their new celly, or even, sometimes, tell you about their crime. A guy read his piece that I had missed last time to me during break and I found myself concentrating more on how he could fix it craft wise than the novelty of the crime he was describing–the crime that had landed him in prison.

Desensitized, I guess “they” would call it. I’ve been going up there for almost two years now, so it all isn’t so overwhelming, or new. Our guys are our guys and we take them as they are. Most nights.

On Thursday night though, there was one of those moments that made me think of being in prison first, writing second. For the life of me now, I can’t remember how the conversation started, but one of the young kids in the group piped up in seeming defense of one of the older guys.

“You have to understand,” he said, “It’s not like J- wakes up in the morning and decides he’s going to kill some guy. No. In here you have reasons. You never do it for nothing. But sometimes it has to be done. You have to respect him for that.”

We didn’t stay on this topic long. You can’t, as a teacher. You neither want to give too much air time to those who want to defend violent behavior or argue too long with them about what it’s like on the inside when you’ve never been there yourself. I suppose, up until this moment, I was more likely to side with the inmates. And it is true, I think the very institution of prison breeds violence, even in those who weren’t violent before they came in. But to hear one of the guys actually say, in essence, killing happens in here and don’t tell us there’s anything to be done about it, got my attention. I wanted to ask, but what? What can happen in here, where you are so isolated, that could get you so pissed off that killing seems the only option? Is it pride? Is it dignity? Respect? Do you have so little to defend in here that the smallest offense, the slightest hint of disrespect is suddenly a murder-able offense? And if that’s the case, then do I want this young man back out on the outside some day? A man who believes that in the right context, killing a man is justified? Do I believe that?

I’m writing a scene in a story right now where a character believes that all men need to fight-that violence is in the blood and out to be drained out every now and then. But that’s fighting, not killing. This character did kill a man in prison, for complicated reasons. It wasn’t hard for me, as the author, to come up with reasons though. So, though the character regrets his actions, he still did it. And he did it to survive.

I suppose that’s what has me still thinking about this whole exchange. Survival. We cage men who have already demonstrated a propensity for violence, and then we watch them kill one another. Maybe my disgust over the whole thing isn’t so much about the young man defending the actions of the older inmate, but about the fact that I belong to a society that would honor an institution that conditions men to believe murder ought to be respected.

I don’t fault the men for surviving. I don’t fault society for wanting to feel safe by putting violent men behind bars. I don’t fault victims of crime for wanting revenge. But let’s not fool ourselves–ultimately the entire system is about violence–from the crime, to the revenge (sentence) imposed by the courts on our (free citizens) behalf, to the power given to the guards and the myriad of ways it can be abused, to the inmates struggling for some sense of power and self worth. To call it a “vicious cycle” barely comes close to touching on the complex web of incongruencies surrounding the prison system and the supposed hope for rehabilitation.

Thursday night, I remembered. This is prison. The men in our group know violence in ways I never have, and hopefully never will, but it would be to my benefit to not forget exactly where I am.

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